The Language of Dementia: 5 Tips for Better Communication

In-Home Senior Care, Melville, NY

Language is an area of the brain that often gets affected by dementia.  In fact, losing the ability to communicate or changes in the person’s communication may be some of the early signs of the disease.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, problems with communication include the following:

  • difficulty finding the right words
  • using familiar words repeatedly
  • describing familiar objects rather than calling them by name
  • easily losing a train of thought
  • difficulty organizing words logically
  • reverting to speaking a native language
  • speaking less often
  • relying on gestures more than speaking

As the disease progress, the person living with dementia will have greater difficulty expressing thoughts and emotions.  It can become particularly challenging for family members who are responsible for the health and well-being of the person living with dementia.  Without the feedback and insight from the person living with dementia, it can become a guessing game.  Adult children of aging parents with dementia often complain about role reversal and feeling as though they themselves are the parents and their loved one is the child.  As the person’s language and communication skills become more impaired the burden of knowing what the person wants and needs fall onto the family members to decipher and understand.  As one adult child recently put it to me, “I am my father’s voice”.

Some of the challenges with communication are centered around behavior.  With dementia, behavior becomes the language in which to communicate.  A person living with dementia will understand body language easier than words and be able to communicate through gestures and facial expressions.  In fact, non-verbal communication stays intact in dementia well into the moderate and severe stages of the disease.  Therefore, even when your loved one with dementia is unable to understand what you’re saying, they will detect the compassion in your voice and the joy in your smile.  This also works the same way with negative body language where the person with dementia will sense the frustration and anger or a rushed, impatient gesture.

Tips for Communication:

  1. Approach the person from the front and walk slowly. Kneel or sit down to be at eye level if the person is seated.
  2. Make eye contact and hand contact. You could put your hand out to hold the person’s hand and continue to do so as you are speaking.  This will help to create a positive connection as well as help the person to keep their attention on you.
  3. Empathize with the person’s facial expression and mimic it. This exemplifies a compassionate and empathetic stance.
  4. Avoid an argument or debate. In fact, throw right and wrong right out the window.  If the person with dementia is wrong about something, let it be.  This may mean just stating, “you’re right”, and moving on to another subject.  As hard as it may be, it will save you a lot of time and frustration.
  5. Use a few forms of communication – written notes, visual cues, and simple words work great.